Large Families and Poverty. Reflections from the “Africa in Transition” event at the Wilson Center

The Wilson Center Event:
At the beginning of this week, I attended a panel discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. The Wilson Center frequently hosts preeminent scholars and experts on various research topics in the national and international sphere. The event I attended was titled “Africa in Transition: The Role of Women in Peace and Security”. In summary, the discussion focused on the importance of engaging women by offering them education, job opportunities and leadership roles to combat against gender inequality stemming from a male dominated society. By doing so, we can help promote better representation, security and peace in the diverse African continent.
During the discussion, one of the researchers on the panel named Elizabeth Madsen noted the relationship between a nation’s total fertility rates (TFR), and its economic status. Countries with a low TFR normally have a higher GDP per capita while countries with a higher TFR display a lower GDP per capita. This correlation is prevalent amongst the literature in the development discipline.
In addition, Madsen and the panelists, noted that millions of African women have a desire to lower the number of pregnancies one has and to space the births of their children. The current lack of access to contraception prohibits this outcome. Thus, it was concluded that there is a need for greater access to contraception to address this “unmet need”. In essence, there is a growing idea that children and large families are the problem and cause of prevalent impoverishment. While this issue is too complex to address in a few hundred words, I want to discuss Madsen’s claim.
Questions to the Panel:
During the Q&A an audience member identified herself as a journalist speaking as a Nigerian-American woman. She commented to the panel that she felt riled by this rhetoric. In short, she noted that in her tribe, women link childbearing with their worth. Women don’t want birth control and contraception. They think it is a blessing to have a number of kids. The actual cause of poverty comes from corruption and greed. The aid given to her country has been stolen.
She posed this to the panel How do you continue the narrative that you have to reduce the number of kids you’re having when people don’t see that as a problem? (Found on 1:45:12 in the Africa in Transition Webcast. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/africa-transition-the-role-women-peace-and-security). I was impressed by the courage of this woman to stand up against the panelist and this common assertion.
The panelist acknowledged that lowering fertility alone is not enough to combat poverty and that investments in that country need to be able to accommodate this changing demographic. These investments need to encourage trade, fiscal stability, and shifts towards more productive industries. However, this raises two questions. First, would not the promotion of contraception and smaller families flip the cultural mindset the journalist was describing? Big families would be looked down upon and be deemed the reason for regional poverty if the panelist’s strategy were to continue. Second, is it not possible to skip to this second step of smart investment while allowing for big families? Why should having smaller families be a precursor to more effective country investment? Country financing would be rendered ineffective if incompetent and corrupt leaders exploited these funds. Logically, dishonest leadership seems to be a stronger factor for poverty than TFR.
Indeed, there is also a body of literature showing a relationship between lower levels of corruption and higher levels of GDP per capita (see Chetwynd et al 2003). Admittedly, the mere elimination of corruption may not directly encourage economic regional growth, but it seems to directly address the deeper root of impoverishment. Much of poverty is due to a failure to allocate resources evenly amongst a population. This is made worse when social elites/politicians cancerously take in greater wealth and deprive others of those assets. Thus, I stand with this female journalist and reiterate her statement: “The actual cause of poverty comes from corruption and greed.”
Conclusion:
Admittedly, it is harder to measure the level of greed and corruption within a nation, but it’s a helpful start in addressing the root issue. To clarify, I am not stating that every family must have many children. There is a virtue in responsible parenthood, and understanding the limits to how many children a couple can raise together is prudent for themselves and for their family. I am also not asserting that small families have less value than large ones. But, we cannot continue this idea that having fewer children, reduced TFR, and smaller families are necessary first steps to reducing poverty levels. The problem is not from high fertility rates and large families. The problem comes from corrupt politicians, and selfish leaders seeking their own interests and exploiting resources and citizens. The major root of poverty is from greed, and selfishness.
In the words of Jason Evert, “the solution to poverty is not to reduce the number of children, the solution to poverty is to reduce the number of rich corrupt politicians” (14:00 in “Jason Evert on Natural Family Planning” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtOlqtmsoiw).
Works Cited
Catholic Studio. “Jason Evert on Natural Family Planning.” Youtube.com. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtOlqtmsoiw> (Accessed 1 November 2019)
Chetwynd, E., Chetwynd, F. and Spector, B., 2003. Corruption and poverty: A review of recent literature. Management Systems International, 600, pp.5-16.
Environmental Change and Security Program “Africa in Transition: The Role of Women in Peace and Security.” Wilsoncenter.com. Available at <https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/africa-transition-the-role-women-peace-and-security> (Accessed 1 November 2019)